Beyond Grave Matters



 – A Walk with Dr Ho Hua Chew. Sunday 19th, Feb 2012. 

by Rosalind M Tan.

It was a morning not unlike any other, except that I had not expected that it would take five and a half hours to go on a nature walk in Bukit Brown! I wasn’t warned! But ask me now if I would do it again……and my answer is a resounding, Yes!

It was my second meeting with Dr Ho Hua Chew, passionate naturalist and expert on birdlife in Singapore. I knew I was in good hands.

The Incursion (photo: Rosalind Tan)


The morning’s tour began with a map. Like all educational tours, we had to have an idea of where we were heading. Whipping out a map, Dr Ho showed us where the new proposed road would be. Upon re-alignment, it is now slated cut across at least two valleys of Bukit Brown. We were there to see first-hand the dreaded potential ecological loss and damage to the natural habitat that has matured over the decades.

First off at 815am, about twenty of us headed towards hill 4. Seeing the stakes in the ground was like having stakes driven into one’s heart. But what captured my attention next were the beautiful and gorgeous matured trees that loomed tall and majestic. It was my first initiation to a parkland landscape in a cemetery! Native and alien tree species abound – the Angsana; the Rain Tree, the Morinda, the African Tulip, the Waringin, the Fish-tailed Palm, etc. With deep hues of yellow, red and orange, the ornamental Croton is aplenty, adorning the graves like a garden landscape.

Co-Existence Host and Parasite (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Seen here, winding vines with tiny figs, clinging on tenaciously for dear life. Nonetheless, host and parasite seem to have a harmonious co-existence.  I must admit this was the first time in my entire life that I have seen such “figs”. The figs that I had in my garden then did not look anything like this.


The Great Banyan (photo: Rosalind Tan)


As we approached the end of hill 4, it was just incredibly unbelievable that we might lose equally magnificent banyan trees! How does anyone justify this? The thought of it makes me sad for the generations to come. Not that I am not sorry in the here and now for me and all of us. But because, in our very midst now, we are deliberately and consciously hell-bent on destroying these beautiful gifts from Mother Nature. This ole banyan may have stood for longer than most of us have lived, but all it takes is one fell swoop to decimate her. If trees could talk, listen. Should we do this? In exchange for what, I ask?


Eco Support System (photo: Rosalind Tan)

As we were leaving hill 4, Dr Ho pointed out the only one large visible stream left in Bukit Brown. The rest are either covered by overgrown vegetation or simply, choked up. I am given to understand from the tomb caretaker whose families lived here for three generations before, that the streams provided water for tomb maintenance and drinking! I have noticed some people fishing in this stream before.

Pigeons on High (photo: Rosalind Tan)


There were other surprises in store. Flying high above our heads and as far as the eye could see, were flocks of swallows and swifts. How do you tell them apart? Dr Ho explained. But I was distracted! A flock of pigeons was spied balancing on the top of trees! What an act! Cirque du Soleil would be proud. Moreover, the trained and experienced eye of some members of the Nature Society of Singapore spotted eagles. Like all avid bird watchers, not having their binoculars was not an option. I was just grateful to be been there!


Monkeys at Play (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Monkeys! Someone mentioned monkeys. Come to think of it, it suddenly dawned on me that the monkeys in Bukit Brown were never a bother to anyone. I go to Bukit Brown often and never once have I witnessed any mischievous or vicious behaviour on their part. Unlike the reports that we read in the papers of monkey mischief and attacks around Pierce, Seletar and MacRitchie reservoirs, I have come to the conclusion that they behave such because we have encroached on their natural habitat! Destruction of their habitat to give way to rapid development and urbanisation has driven them out to scavenge for food. Where else would they go? But in Bukit Brown, they are contented, peaceful and playful because they are in their own comfort zone. It is their natural habitat. See for yourself in the picture taken on a previous visit to BB.


Noni for Sustenance (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Other than all creatures great and small, I was privileged to be shown the flowers of the star fruit; the domestic lime plant and that of the noni fruit! In the commercial market place, the juice extract from the Hawaiian noni fruit would cost an arm and a leg (well, almost), but our little monkeys were happily helping themselves!

Should we deprive our little friends of their sustenance? When they are driven out of Bukit Brown, where will they go? Who will feed them? Should we put them down when they turn aggressive? If your family is threatened, what will you do?


Death Valley (photo: Rosalind Tan)


The proposed highway will mercilessly cut through this valley,  eight lanes of traffic. It only means added carbon emission that will choke and suck out the life of living things and creatures. On Jan1, the European Union  imposed on airlines a carbon emission tax. Are we are not already contributing enough to global warming? Notice the countless air conditioning compressors in all our  residential, commercial and industrial buildings in our little red dot. Granted, in equatorial Singapore, we do need air-conditioning. But to what degree? I see office workers coming out to lunch – to defrost! In our glitzy shopping malls, the eskimos would be very much at home. We seem to gas ourselves, slowly but surely. Let not Earth Hour be in vain. I recall the recent floods. The unprecendented extra high rainfall that can cripple economies and devastate livelihoods. Let global warming be a warning.

Exiting hill 4, a handful of participants decided to call it a day! But we were only at the two-third mark of the morning’s nature walk. Dr Ho may look like your friendly neighbourhood, unassuming and good-natured uncle, but boy could he walk! Some of us were half his age, but did not even have half his energy!  I wasn’t ready to fly the white flag!

So, we continued and took another path to Lau Sua,  known as Gan Eng Seng Hill. Lo and behold, greater treasures and rewards await those who endure and persist.

Ironman of Nature Society (photo: Rosalind Tan)


We owe a debt of appreciation to Dr Ho for his quiet persuasion, for encouraging us to carry on – “only one third more”. Frankly, it would have been terribly embarrassing not to complete this walk. We were supposed to be younger and fit, if not fitter! He could put all of us to shame. You wouldn’t want to ask the man his age. But I could use mine as an excuse to gracefully bow out. But no way, was I going to give up after having covered two-thirds of the walk. And best of all, he was freely dispensing food for the body, mind and soul.

In the picture above, Dr Ho with nary a bead of sweat! Measure his blood pressure and we will be scrambling for a health check! I suspect he’s the Ironman in disguise! A 42km marathon would be no sweat to him!

Oh, but we were just thankful for the above brief respite of a pit stop! The air was surprisingly cool and smelt sweet. You could almost taste it! Perhaps it was because of what was lurking under that sturdy….or was it, a creaky wooden bridge!

Life in the Stream in Lau Sua (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Crystal clear “longkang” water. A stream, if you like. You can see the reflection of the blue sky! Now I fully understand how the ladies of ancient times did their make-up before the era of mirrors. Dragon flies flit and you can also hear faint sounds of gurgling water. In the past, this was also drinking water for the families who lived here, as told to me by a tomb caretaker, Mr Lim.  This is borne true by Dr Ho. He said, “The presence of dragon flies is an indicator of water purity”.

The ripples are caused by tiny fishes. Vegetation life here is lush and full.


Goodbye Bian! (photo: Rosalind Tan)


From here, we cut across the open field (that once held graves) on the left and our sure-footed single-minded leader led us to another forested path in the direction of Onraet Road. It was tempting to throw in the towel. But not just yet. I was on a high, dosed on the generous sights and smells of Mother Nature. Secretly, I thought to myself, “If Dr Ho can do it, so can I!” Come hell or high water or the noon day sun, I will make it. Talk about “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!”

Determination and a good pair of walking shoes saved the day. Incidentally, one participant had earlier left her sole in hill 4!


Follow the Leader (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Even if all I saw was his back, it only meant that I had to catch up. Trailing behind was not a problem, so long as he was within sight. Thankfully, the man has the patience of Job.

The “punishment” proved to be worth it! No pain, no gain. How so very true in this instant. On the contrary, I would ask “What did I do to deserve this?” Ah………….


The View (photo: Rosalind Tan)


The “penthouse” view!  The grand finale. The grand prize. We were standing on this hill, with the traffic of the PIE beyond. The terrain was undulating, yet the slopes were gentle. Crotons adorned the graves. The verte green of the trees, the fullness of the plants and the openness of the vast space at our feet! What more could we ask for? Nothing, except, please don’t destroy this! It was a horrible thought – housing! A piercing scream in the stillness. A fatal stab.

A recollection of the great escape of Mas Selamat (once Singapore’s most wanted terrorist) had a calming effect in that blasting heat! “When he jumped out of the Whitley Road detention centre (through the toilet window?), Mas Selamat escaped through the thick forested area here (not unlike the Malaysian jungle); then he went up Thomson Road; headed for Whitley Road and promptly disappeared into Toa Payoh!”  Wow! Mas Selamat  was here!! Here’s looking at you!

The sun was beating down hard on us, the last remaining survivors! Soaking in the view, listening to the lively chirpings and singing of birds to the muffled sound of traffic from the PIE, it was easy to forget that we were standing among graves! If a healthy imagination permits, an evening spent looking at the stars atop this hillock would complete this million, correction, billion dollar view! It was indeed a sight to behold. You see more green than graves. Hopefully future generations will see this too. In this unaffected natural state.

Reluctantly, for once, it was time to return to base Bukit Brown. But Dr Ho had one last remaining treat up his sleeve. What he promised, he delivered. This man is a consummate. Never have I met one such. I thank my lucky stars today. For, before this, I never really saw beyond the graves at Bukit Brown since the discovery of the ancestral tombs of my grandparents in 2011.


A Visual Delight – Sky Tapestry . (photo: Rosalind Tan)


What splendour. What magnificence. Unfettered. Where in Singapore does one find such scenic beauty of the landscape? A parkland landscape of hillocks and dense woodlands supporting the Wild Cinnamon, the African tulips, the Albizias, the Giant Mahang, all the favoured haunts of a variety of birds. This is pure, virgin forest. Seeing is believing, that such exist in our midst of bricks and mortar of urban Singapore.


Green Pigeon- eye catching and plump. (photo: Rosalind Tan)


Seeing this green pigeon in flight up-close and personal was pure enchantment. Our eminent Dr Ho perked his ears to the calls of the Woodpecker, the deep full throated sounds of the Bulbul and the Kingfisher. Thankfully, I still have an acute sense of hearing and smell. Birds chirping and singing is music to the ears.

Had it not been for this initiation by Dr Ho, I would not have been able to tell the difference between one bird call from another. Ignorance is not bliss. The morning amble was hands-on and very much a healthy, living and learning outdoor work-out in the most conducive surroundings ever.


Apart from its high biodiversity value in terms of birdlife, there is also the cultural heritage value and its related significance in Bukit Brown. The whole of Bukit Brown deserves to be recognised and protected for its aesthetic, therapeutic and recreational uses. In the early morning or evening, many come to jog, walk their dogs or cycle. Even the horses from the nearby polo club come a-sauntering!

Dr Ho’s selfless giving leaves an indelible mark. Take a walk on the wild side and see for yourself. And if you are lucky, you just might have the honour of being in the company of our eminent environmentalist and authority on birdlife, Dr Ho Hua Chew.

If we choose to continue to sit on our hands, we may lose what matters most – our sanity, and with it our humanity, for we risk greater damage in our propensity for rampant expansion in the name of development. It is time to take a breather and gather our senses. Let our children be children. Humans are not robots. We can live in harmony with Nature. After all, how many cars can we drive at any one time? How many condos can we live in, at any one time? It would be a crying shame to know the price of everything, but the value of, nothing.




Rosalind is a passionate Peranakan nonya who helps administrate the Facebook page, Heritage Singapore – Bukit Brown. Her grandfather Tan Yong Thian is a pioneer buried in Bukit Brown. You can visit the beautifully restored Teochew tomb in Block 2, Group 2 tours. all things Bukit Brown thanks her for this contribution, and hopes we will continue to get her beautiful prose and photos.